February 23, 2007

On being an exotic squatter

"Now don't say we never bring you anything exotic from the Far East!" beamed the hostess for the night.

Thunderous applause. The audience was packed into the cramped cellar below a popular cafe in Cambridge. I started to sing and apparently, mesmerised the crowd with my unorthodox finger-picking style on the guitar - "It's very interesting - the way you pick the strings!" Someone said. It was quite the unexpected compliment. Nothing to do with my songs or anything, but the way my fingers moved.

What was even more unexpected was the hostess' introduction. Was I some kind of animal or paraphernalia? My highly perceptive friend thought it was all quite amusing; the "exotic" artist from Malaysia sang in English, while the next group of musicians from England was using what looked like a variety of instruments made from different parts of tropical plants. I had the feeling that the audience did not quite know how to place me.

"Of course you are exotic to us!" quipped a French friendwhen told ofmy experience, the same guy who said that nobody likes immigrants in France, as though these were simply facts to be digested and accepted. Bob (not his real name) was a really nice friend. But after that conversation, it was hard to maintain the same friendship. I could not help thinking that he befriended me just because I was exotic, apart from me having the urge every now and then to break out into a Chinese fan dance when we meet. I also wondered why it would not seem appropriate to call him exotic if he were to go to the "Far East". After all, the first definition to the word exotic on dictionary.com was, "from another part of the world; foreign".

It is interesting how our identities shift in accordance to our environments, and what you do within that context. Growing up in Malaysia, I always knew that my ethnicity was Chinese, but I never FELT more Chinese being in a predominantly white town like Cambridge. Suddenly, I became yellow and my Indian friend brown. Endless discussions about identities and stereotyping ensued. I cannot remember exactly when I started noticing these things, but I suspect it may be something like the beginnings of consciousness in a mother's womb; nobody knows exactly when but it happens, and it should happen for a good reason.

Going through this awareness makes me more perceptive when I am back in my own country. It allows me to recognise and deal with silly things like negative stereotyping and how these impact our lives. An important part of this process is being able to talk about it in a comfortable andconstructive manner;a process whichhas been succesfully driven underground by threatswhether real or imagined. What we do hear of this topic seems to involve name-calling and accusatory remarks by the people who represent us in Parliament, in particular one named Badruddin who also once referred to minorities in this country as merely 'menumpang' (squatting). Ironically, isn't this the very sort of negative discourse our leaders were afraid therakyat would indulge in?

At the end of the day, I don't think anyone really wants to be "exotic", nor do they want to be labelled as someone who is just squatting in their own country. Perhaps imagination isjustwhat is lacking. Watching Yasmin Ahmad's film Gubra was a refreshing reminder of the possibility of existing as human beingsamidst allthe differences in society.

Sometimes, it just seems easier to think that how the way things have been will never change, but then again you do come across people that unknowingly inject you with optimism; during my early teenage days when internet chatting started flourishing in a big way, I was asked in a Malaysian chat room whether I was Chinese. I was so fed up of getting this query every time and went straight into a long lecture online on how it should not matter what race we are but that we are all Malaysians. The reply I got was simply this, "I just want to know whether I should wish you a Happy Chinese New Year or not mah."

The writer is a psychologist by day and a singer-songwriter on other days. She likes to pay her bills on time.

Published in The SUN - Thu, 20 Apr 2006 (

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